The Jewish Question?
No wait, don’t go, this isn’t a Daily Stormer article or a deconstruction of Marx’s ‘Zur Judenfrage’ it’s more a quick dive into the history of antisemitism, by me, neither a scholar or blessed with much in the way of intelligence, it’s just the equivalent of a CliffsNotes journey through the ages in an attempt to discover how we got from there to here, sparked as many things are these days by somebody asking the question in a thread on twitter.
The question was this:
Now Twitter is good for a lot of things, but explaining the origin and history of antisemitism is somewhat restricted by the 280 character limit, but it is definitely a subject that requires further examination.
So, lets set the way back machine to the very beginning.
Persecution of Jewish people can trace its roots back pretty far into antiquity, we’ll start with the earliest recorded examples in 230BCE with the Egyptian priest Manetho, A Greek speaking Egyptian who devoted a large portion of his works on the history of Egypt to the exodus of the Israelites, Manetho retools the narrative from one of liberation into one of expulsion, the Israelites did not escape Egypt, but were instead expelled by command of the Gods who desired that the land be purified of all unclean people, Moses himself is relegated to the position of a priest that the Israelites rally around, as they begin a barbaric terrorist attack against the Egyptian people, performing sacrilegious acts like killing, roasting and eating the sacred animals of the Egyptian Gods, until finally the Pharaoh succeeds in expelling them, only to find that they set up their own rogue state around Jerusalem where they proceed to build their temples.
After the conquest of the middle east by Alexander the Great, the hatred toward Jews continued to blossom, the Hellenistic king of the Seleucid Empire Antiochus IV Epiphanes reigned from 175BCE to 164BCE, The Seleucids, like the Ptolemies who proceeded them, respected Jewish culture and protected their institutions, Antiochus reversed all this and started a period of persecution that would become known as the Antiochene crises which would lead to the Maccabean Revolt and in 164BCE after three years of fighting the Maccabees recaptured Jerusalem, the cleansing of the Temple and the rededication of the Alter is what is celebrated to this day as the festival of Hanukkah.
It was the early Greek hatred of the Jews that found itself permeating through later Roman culture, Marcus Tullius Cicero, a Roman lawyer, statesman and scholar, born in 106BCE, whilst defending his client Flaccus, who stood accused of seizing gold that had been contributed by Jews to the temple, claimed Judaism as “A barbaric superstition that should be opposed” and denigrated the Jewish people of Rome for playing too prominent a part in public assemblies, interestingly in ‘De Provinciis Consularbius’ he also refers to the Jews as “Races born of slaves” thus he is arguably the progenitor of the dual trope that Jews seemingly hold too much power (punching up) and that jews are of low blood (punching down) that still permeates to this day.
A different Flaccus, Aulus Avillius was appointed praefectus of Roman Egypt in 33BCE, he declared that Jews in Alexandria were to be treated as foreign and expelled them from their quarters, restricting them to live in only one of the five districts of the city, he then allowed mobs to erect statues of Caligula in synagogues and permitted anyone who was so inclined to exterminate Jews as prisoners of war, according to Philo of Alexandia, the enemies of the Jews “Slew them and thousands of others with all kinds of agony and tortures, and newly invented cruelties, for wherever they met with or caught sight of a Jew, they stoned him or beat him with sticks” he goes on to add “The most merciless of all their persecutors in some instances burnt whole families, husbands with their wives, and infant children with their parents, in the middle of the city”
Many Romans often borrowed, quoted and reinterpreted what the Greeks had already written about the Jews, one of the most prominent, the Roman historian Publius Cornelius Tacitus, regurgitates much of the earlier Greek writings, devoting thirteen chapters to the Jews at the start of Book V of his Histories, remarking on what he describes as “The Jewish hatred of the human race”, he brands the Jews as “A race of men hated by the Gods” and includes the absolute gem “Their practices are base and wicked, and prevail through their own depravity”
Throughout antiquity you can find disparaging remarks and troubling history recorded about Jewish people in the works of Hecataeus of Abdera, Chaeremon, Lysimachus, Posidonius, Apollonius Molon, Apion, Agatharchides, Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, Titus, Flavius Josephus, Lucius Cassius Dio, et al. To say it didn’t start out well would be something of an understatement.
In 70CE all this hatred came to a head in the First Jewish-Roman War, the decisive battle of which was the Siege of Jerusalem, The Roman Army was led by future emperor Titus, who besieged and conquered the City of Jerusalem which had been controlled by a rebel Judean faction for the past four years following the riots of 66CE, the Siege began on the 14th April and lasted for five months ending in August with the burning and destruction of the second temple, according to Josephus 1.1 million people were killed in the siege and ninety seven thousand were enslaved. Upon their return Titus and his men celebrated by parading the Menorah and Table of the Bread of God’s Presence through the streets of Rome, an act memorialised with the Arch of Titus located on the Via Sacra in Rome, which itself formed the inspiration for the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.
Following their victory, the Romans refused to permit the Jewish people to rebuild the destroyed temple in Jerusalem, instead they imposed the Fiscus Judaicus, a tax on Jews to finance the Temple of Jupiter in Rome, they then renamed Judea to Syria Palestina, which thankfully solved all problems in the region and peace and prosperity has reigned ever since.
Oh right, well, moving on.
After the birth of Christianity had spread through the Roman Empire, becoming the state religion of Rome in the fourth century, Christian literature became increasingly and openly hostile toward the Jews, there were numerous reports of the burning of synagogues and attacks upon Jewish people. At the Synod of Elvira, nineteen bishops, twenty six deacons and laymen congregated with one of the major outcomes being the banning of marriage between unconverted Jews and Christians, the edicts of the Codex Theodosianus barred Jews from civil service, the military and the legal profession, synagogues were converted into churches after being confiscated and then the mother of all accusations came to the forefront.
Jews killed Christ, or deicide as the formal accusation goes, enter one Melito of Sardis, a bishop and powerful figure of early Christianity, although he may have not been the first to make the accusation, he is the earliest recorded source in his sermon ‘Peri Pascha’ from this point on the Jewish people are accused of bearing collective guilt, ergo it is not even blamed on the Jews supposedly present at Jesus’ death, but all Jewish people collectively… and for all time, no doubt exacerbated by Matthew 27:24–25
“When Pilate saw that he could prevail nothing, but that rather a tumult was made, he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it.
Then answered all the people, and said, His blood be on us, and on our children.”
Much of the persecution of the Jews during the middle ages can be traced back to the “killers of Christ” accusation that arguably peaked during the crusades, all across Europe Jews were denied basic rights, including the right to settle and were subject to outright hostility, they were accused of being the originators of almost everything, from petty crime, wars and plagues (including the 14th century Black Death) and as antisemitism grew, so new accusations were added, including one of the most mind numbingly stupid and damaging.
The Blood Libel as it would become known has its base in the story of William of Norwich, an apprentice tanner who on 22nd March 1144 at the age of twelve died. As tragic as his death was, it was not something totally out of the ordinary in its day, until that is Thomas of Monmouth a Monk in the local Benedictine monastery decided to write a hagiography entitled ‘The Life and Miracles of St. William of Norwich’ within which Thomas claimed that William had been abducted by Jews, tortured and crucified in mockery of the death of Christ, he backed up his accusation with the account of a Monk and former Jew named Theobald of Cambridge, who had informed him that the Jews needed to sacrifice a Christian in a yearly ritual to reclaim the promised land. The legend became a cult, William became a Martyr and the Jews of England following similar accusations in Gloucester, Bury St Edmonds and Bristol, became fair game.
In one such incident on the 16th March 1190, following the massacres in Norwich and at Stamford Fair, one hundred and fifty Jews were attacked in York, they sought refuge in the castle with many choosing to take their own lives rather than be handed over to the baying mob, Thomas of Monmouth’s account of the slaying of William and his assertion that it was an annual ritual quickly spread across Europe with much the same effect, a Christian child dies, simply round up and kill a load of Jews, a practice that many seemed to take to with much gusto.
Then enters another Thomas, this time Thomas of Cantimpre, who takes Monmouth’s story and runs with it in his own text ‘Bonum Universale de Apibus’, here he not only repeats the blood libel, but also neatly ties it back to Mathew 27:25 stating that ever since the immortal words were spoken “His blood be upon us, and on our children” that Jewish men had been afflicted with male menstruation, a condition that could only be sated by the ritualistic shedding of Christian blood.
The first recorded case of the Blood libel accusation outside of England was from Blois, France in 1171, where the entire Jewish community stood accused and thirty three were burnt to death, after a Christian servant reported seeing a Jew dispose of a Christian child’s body in the Loire. In 1235 in the German town of Fulda, the bodies of five children were discovered on Christmas Day, the towns residents quickly came to the conclusion that Jews had killed them to drink their blood, so they rounded up thirty four Jews and burnt them to death, a later investigation by Emperor Frederick II posthumously cleared the Jews of any wrongdoing, but with little effect, the blood libel still persisted.
Indeed back in England you had Harold of Gloucester in 1168, Robert of Bury in 1181 and arguably the most famous Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln who disappeared on 31st of July 1255 and whose body was discovered in a well on August 29th, the accusation was that the Jews had imprisoned Hugh, during which time they tortured him, with the chronicler Mathew of Paris recording
“They scourged him till the blood flowed, they crowned him with thorns, mocked him, and spat upon him; each of them also pierced him with a knife, and they made him drink gall, and scoffed at him with blasphemous insults, and kept gnashing their teeth and calling him Jesus, the false prophet. And after tormenting him in diverse ways they crucified him, and pierced him to the heart with a spear”
After the crucifixion of young Hugh they proceeded to disembowel him as this was widely accepted at the time as being how the Jews get their magic, they threw the body down the well after an attempt to bury him had failed as the earth itself had rejected the body.
King Henry III intervened (adding to the infamy) ordering ninety Jews to be arrested at random and a trial to be held, eighteen of the arrested Jews were hanged for refusing to take part in the show trial, two pardons were issued and the remaining were condemned to death by a jury of forty eight, at which point the monks interceded along with Richard of Cornwall to petition the King, and the prisoners were eventually released.
Another strange mockery appears during the middle ages in the form of the Judensau (Jew Pig) , a depiction of Jews sucking at the teats and engaging in intercourse with a pig, the purpose of the imagery was an obvious case of Jew baiting, but like most pernicious persecution it endures, even today you will find sculptures and images of the Judensau, not just circulated amongst certain communities online, but still remaining at churches and cathedrals throughout Europe, including but not limited to Our Lady church at Aarschot in Belgium, two representations at Église Saint-Martin at Colmar in France, as well as Cathedrals in Basel, Brandenburg, Cadolzburg, Cologne, Eberswalde, Erfurt, Gniezno, Magdeburg, Metz, Regensburg, Strasburg, Uppsala, et al
One example, the 13th century sculpture known as the Wittenberg Judensau which is still on display at the Town Church in Wittenberg features an inscription referencing an anti-Jewish tract by Martin Luther which was added to the stone carving in 1570, there was a petition raised by a local Jewish man named Michael Duellmann to have the sculpture removed from it’s prominent position and instead be housed in the local museum, this was denied by the German courts in 2019, 2020 and again in 2022.
There was of course huge financial gains to made from the persecution of the Jews, during the 13th and 14th centuries France discovered that by expelling Jews and confiscating property and possessions it could enrich the crown, so they did it a few times, most notably Philip Augustus expelled them from Paris in 1182, Lois IX expelled them from the whole of France in 1254, Philip IV followed suit in 1306, as did Charles IV in 1322 and Charles VI in 1394.
Over in England a nation not to be shown up by the French, the Jews were expelled from Bury St. Edmunds in 1190, Leicester in 1231, Newcastle in 1234, Wycombe in 1235, Southampton in 1236, Berkhamsted in 1242, and Newbury in 1244.
Edward I in an effort to raise money for his war against Wales in 1276 taxed the Jews, when they could no longer afford to pay, he levelled the accusation that they were disloyal, abolished their privileges to lend money (one of the few occupations they hadn’t previously been restricted from) placed curtailments on their movement and activities and in a horrible case of foreshadowing, forced all jews to wear a yellow patch, he then arrested three hundred jews and had them executed before declaring enough was enough, Edward banished all Jews from England in 1290 whilst confiscating all money and property in the process, there were no Jews to be reported in England until Oliver Cromwell reversed the policy in 1655.
During the mid-14th century as the plague swept across Europe and annihilated almost half the population, scientific understanding of disease and pandemics was still a long way off, people had little to no understanding of what was happening, they wanted an explanation and as always they found one in blaming the Jews.
In April of 1349 the first massacre took place in Toulon, where Christians sacked the Jewish quarter and murdered forty Jews in their own homes, shortly after violence broke out in Barcelona, within no time it had spread through Europe with massacres in Erfurt, Basel, Aragon and Flanders, in the Strasbourg massacre on Valentines Day around two thousand Jews were burnt alive, the Christian residents sifted through the ashes, happily looting any possessions that had survived the flames.
Within weeks five hundred and ten Jewish communities had been destroyed, the three thousand strong Jewish community in Mainz were able to hold off the Christian attack, but sadly not for long, they were eventually overpowered and every single person was put to death.
As the persecution was beginning to wane in Western Europe it was just gaining steam in the east where by 1351 a further sixty major Jewish communities had been wiped out along with three hundred and fifty minor communities, “where were the authorities?” you may be asking yourself, well they were very busy, in most cases abetting the perpetrators, indeed Charles IV, the Holy Roman Emperor declared the property of Jews killed in riots forfeit and offered local authorities a financial incentive to turn a blind eye.
In 1370 another massacre occurred, this time in Brussels, following a clerical usury scandal involving two priests and a Jewish man named Mesterman, The allegations was that a rich Jew wanted to obtain some consecrated hosts to profane, and bribed a male Jewish convert to Christianity to steal some. the stolen wafers had ended up in the hands of the Jews of Brussels, where in the synagogue on Good Friday they tried to stab the wafers with their daggers, causing the blood of Christ to pour forth.
Based on testimony (because lets face it evidence of bleeding wafers would have been hard to produce) the Jews in the synagogue were burnt at the stake and all remaining Jews were to be stripped of their property and possessions before being banished, the incident became known as the Sacrament of the Miracle and was actively celebrated until the years following the second world war, where in the immediate aftermath of the holocaust the antisemitic elements became a little more unpalatable.
In 1475 in Trent under the jurisdiction of the Holy Roman church and after years of persecution by the church with Bernardine of Feltre preaching sermon’s directly attacking the Jewish community, the blood libel came back with a force, a two year old boy went missing on the evening of Thursday 23rd of March, he became known as Simon of Trent, The Jewish community in Trent were immediately blamed for the child’s disappearance and the boys father appealed to the podesta to search the Jewish houses.
Three days later on Easter Sunday, a cook named Seligman went to the water cellar of his employer (the leader of the local Jewish community) Samuel to fetch water for the preparation of the evening meal and found the floating remains of Simon’s body. Samuel himself, accompanied by two other Jews, went to the podestà to report the discovery.
With the body discovered, the entire Jewish community was rounded up and arrested, forced by torture to confess not only to the abduction of Simon, but also for his murder for the purposes of using his blood in their rituals, fifteen of them including Samuel himself were condemned and burnt at the stake, the rest were imprisoned, the womenfolk who because of their gender could not have participated in ritual sacrifice were released in 1478 due to papal intervention.
The notoriety of the Simon of Trent case led to an increase in Anti Jewish violence throughout the surrounding areas of Veneto, Lombardy, and Tyrol, along with a strengthening of the blood libel and many accusations of ritual murder, culminating with the prohibition of Jewish moneylending in 1479 and the expulsion of all Jews in 1486.
In Spain the persecution of Jews was so bad that many converted to Christianity, however as Jews clearly couldn’t be trusted it was feared that these Marranos might be faking it, so Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile instituted the Spanish Inquisition to root out any liars by gaining confessions through torture, around thirty thousand Jews were condemned to death usually by burning, then in 1492 they issued the ‘Edict of Expulsion’ giving all jews four months to either flee the country, convert to Christianity or face death, an idea that seemed so good Portugal decided to do the same in 1496.
And those Jews that did escape persecution by fleeing? Well they usually ended up living in Ghettos and being subjected to restrictions on what professions they could hold, where they could live and so on, for those that had the misfortune to settle in papal states, they found themselves under Papal Bull ‘Cum Nimis Absudum’ issued by Pope Paul IV revoking all rights to the Jewish community and placing religious, social and economic restrictions, it opens as it means to go on with “Since it is absurd and utterly inconvenient that the Jews, who through their own fault were condemned by god to eternal slavery…” which is where it takes its name.
But hey, what’s this on the horizon? It’s only the bloody Age of Enlightenment, that has to be a good thing, as the old systems were questioned and the notion of individual liberty came into existence, civil rights were extended to the jews and prominent thinkers and writers like Voltaire… oh bum, forget about him, but certainly in places like Prussia new freedoms were there to be had, Frederick II for example with his ‘Revidiertes General Privilegium un Reglement vo die Judenschaft’ allowed Jews to live in Prussia, the only small caveat was they had to be from one of the ten officially protected families and they had to either abstain from marriage or leave Berlin, meanwhile in Russia following the partition of Poland which left Russia with huge amounts of land with a high Jewish population, Catherine II declared this land to be the “Pale of Settlement” and forced the Jewish population to stay there and never return to the homes they occupied before the partitioning.
Wait, that doesn’t sound all that great…
Oh well, moving on, we all know as we approach the 20th century things can only improve.
And you know what, in the 19th century they kinda did, a revolution in France led to Jews having the same rights as any other citizens, they were no longer forced into ghettos, and laws concerning restrictions on property rights, worship and occupation were rescinded, woohoo!
Sadly it didn’t last long, following defeat in the Franco-Prussian war blame was laid squarely at the feet of the Jews, accusations were spread in journals such as ‘La Libre Parole’ founded by Édouard Adolphe Drumont, who would also go on to found the Antisemitic League of France, ‘la libre parole’ happens to be French for ‘free speech’ which I've always found amusing as even today the most vocal right wing supporters of free speech also happen to be antisemitic twats who don’t want free speech so much as consequence free speech.
Over in Russia with Alexander III taking the throne, things got even worse, scapegoating Jews for the assassination of Alexander II waves of pogroms swept through Ukraine, there were pogroms in one hundred and sixty six towns, Jewish homes and property were destroyed driving the population into poverty, The May Laws were introduced as a temporary measure, they barred the Jewish population from being able to settle, banned to them the issuing of mortgages and limited the number of Jews admitted to high schools and universities.
Far from being a temporary measure The May Laws remained in effect for thirty years, they were revised many times, banning jews from certain professions, restricting them from the sale of alcohol, banning Jewish participation in local elections, even introducing criminal punishment to prevent Jews from adopting Christian sounding names, over this period more than two million Jews fled Russia to seek a better life elsewhere.
One of the places that the displaced Jews fled was the United Kingdom, where they were met with open arms, no wait, that’s not right, they were greeted with suspicion and outright hatred, something had to be done about these foriegners before the British way of life came under attack, as the jews would no doubt seek to take over, what with their lust for power, control, wealth, rejection of Christianity and with memories still lingering over the blood libel, it is interesting to note that this was the period during which Bram Stoker wrote his celebrated novel ‘Dracula’ which took a number of anti Jewish tropes and repackaged them into the vampire mythos.
in 1901 the British Brothers’ League was formed, the brains and driving force of which was the conservative MP for Stepney William Evans-Gordon, he and his compatriots argued that Britain should not become “the dumping ground for the scum of Europe” which inspired a wave of attacks against Jews in South Wales, which led to the creation of the Aliens Act 1905, which being vaguely worded as “denying entry to undesirable immigrants” was mainly used to prevent Jewish people from entering the country.
The Act was not well received by everybody, it caused conservative MP Winston Churchill to state that the act would “appeal to insular prejudice against foreigners, to racial prejudice against Jews, and to labour prejudice against competition” and he promptly crossed the floor, defecting from the Conservatives to sit as a member of the Liberal Party.
Back in Germany in 1879 Wilhelm Marr published his Pamphlet ‘Der Weg zum Siege des Germanenthums über das Judenthum’ or ‘The Way to Victory of Germanism over Judaism’, to give it its English title, Marr was the individual most famous for propogating and popularising the term “Antisemitism” hoping to replace the previous term of choice Judenhass (Jew-Hate) with something more scientific sounding, his belief was that the struggle between Jews and Germans could only be resolved by the total annihilation of one or the other, he then founded the League of Antisemites, with the sole aim of driving all Jews from Germany, an odd position for a fellow whose second and happiest marriage was to a Jewish woman, until she died in childbirth and whose third marriage was to a woman of mixed christian Jewish heritage.
It’s not clear if Marr was aware of Joseph Arthur de Gobineau and his infamous work ‘Essai sur l’inégalité des races humaines’ which wasn’t translated into German until 1898, but was available in the original French in 1853, their works contain similar arguments, Gobineau with his theories rooted in Ethnonationalism and Social Darwinism argued that the European white Aryan was superior to the Semitic Jew, a view which would have been incredibly easy to dismiss, if it wasn’t propagated far and wide by people like the American Surgeon and Anthropologist Josiah C. Nott, along with the Swiss American propagandist for the Confederate States of America Henry Hotze.
Gobineau’s work inspired a whole movement in Germany called Gobinism, which counted amongst it supporters Richard Wagner and Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gobineau Association was founded in 1894 by Ludwig Schemann who was responsible for the German translation of Gobineau’s ‘Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races’ which then gained popularity within Germany’s intellectual cliques, finding fans amongst such notable figures as the British born German philosopher Houston Stewart Chamberlain and ideologist Alfred Ernst Rosenberg.
Houston Stewart Chamberlain would go on to write his own magnum opus entitled ‘The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century’ focusing on the influence of the Teutonic peoples on western civilisation, he writes:
“Certain anthropologists would fain teach us that all races are equally gifted; we point to history and answer: that is a lie! The races of mankind are markedly different in the nature and also in the extent of their gifts, and the Germanic races belong to the most highly gifted group, the group usually termed Aryan …
Physically and mentally the Aryans are pre-eminent among all peoples; for that reason they are by right … the lords of the world. Do we not see the homo syriacus develop just as well and as happily in the position of slave as of master? Do the Chinese not show us another example of the same nature?”
As for Rosenberg, during the German occupation in 1918, he was employed as a teacher at the Gustav Adolf Gymnasium, on the 30th November he delivered his first speech on Jewish Marxism at the House of the Blackheads in Estonia, after the outbreak of the Estonian war of independence he emigrated to Germany and became a contributor to the Newspaper Völkischer Beobachter, then joined the German Workers Party, where following its rebranding to the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, he quickly rose through the ranks, in 1933 following Adolph Hitler’s imprisonment for treason, Rosenberg was the leader of the Nazi movement, a position he held until Hitler’s release.
Hitler as you might have suspected, lapped up all that was on offer, he even expanded on Chamberlain’s theory that Jesus was descended from the Amorites and therefore (despite Jesus being quite clear on the matter) wasn’t Jewish, Hitler took it one step further in one of his table talks, claiming Jesus as the illegitimate son of a Roman soldier stationed in Galilee, such was the desire to strip the figure of Christ of his ethnicity and reimagine him as an Aryan.
And that’s where I’ll wrap things up, I’m hoping by now that everybody knows what happened next and if you don’t there are thousands of texts that explain it in more detail than I could ever hope to manage and as I said at the start, this is just a quickie, not an exhaustive essay, just the brief highlights of a couple of centuries of persecution of people whose only apparent crime was existing.